Remember when journalists would receive fat packages of VHS tapes from PROs promoting their clients? It was a time-consuming and costly exercise. Now, of course, a visual message can be delivered across the world in an instant, thanks to the internet.
Although take-up of the internet to promote client messages is still not universal, the increasing penetration of broadband access is making internet broadcast more relevant than ever.
Former telecoms regulator Oftel has said that, at the last count, UK consumers and businesses were signing up for broadband at a rate of 28,000 connections a week, and the total number of users has gone well past the three million mark.
Given that all the major TV and radio broadcasters have an active web presence and there is a growing opportunity to get video and audio company messages online, will this be the year that the PR industry fully embraces the internet as a broadcast PR medium?
More interesting than text
Inevitably, more organistions will move in this direction, making the media on the net far richer and more interesting than text.
Markettiers4DC, for example, is investing in a new studio to allow clientbrands to have mini chat shows online - in effect, to provide an online media channel.
Broadcast PR specialist Medialink senior broadcast consultant Toby Low says there is a still a question mark over whether the rise of broadband has yet had an effect on the popularity of using the internet to broadcast PR messages.
'There has been uptake of broadband, but there are still an awful lot of people who don't have it, he says.
'We need to think carefully about what people are prepared to use. There seems to be some reluctance to download video.'
However, at Quadrant, the Cardiff-based PR and broadcast specialist, deputy chief executive Colin Stevens says clients are starting to realise the benefits of broadband, in terms of what is technically possible and the audiences they can reach.
This has enabled the company to introduce video streaming and online photo library facilities at broadcast and print quality.
When it launched Opportunity Wales, simultaneous events were held at four venues across the country and streamed the proceedings via the web, reaching audiences worldwide. 'Before streaming, our audience reach would have been limited,' Stevens admits.
Because of its very nature, the web is ideal for any campaign that is targeted at an international audience. Broadband-enabled TV newsrooms worldwide can download broadcast quality video news releases direct from video servers and edit them into news bulletins within an hour of release.
Quadrant client the Foreign Press Association (FPA) also found that web streaming and video have been well received by its journalist members.
The relaunch of the association's Gladstone Lecture last March, delivered by Dame Marjorie Scardino, presented it with the first opportunity to film the lecture and make it more accessible to 700 members via its website.
As host of the daily Downing Street press briefings, the FPA has also web-cast a number of briefings given by cabinet ministers on its website.
At broadcast specialist BroadView, managing director Stuart Maister says there is evidence that video content makes websites more relevant. 'Over time, audiences will expect to be able to click on corporate and other sites and get taken to the people or activities through video,' he says.
'I'm in no doubt that it will become the norm for such content and sites without it will look second best.'
The main use of the internet as a broadcast PR medium is still in the financial arena, communicating with investors and other stakeholders via web streaming.
As web broadcast specialist Cantos has shown (see case study, p29), there is increasing appreciation of the possibilities of the web for corporate announcements, meetings and presentations, CEO and other management interviews, and annual reports.
Obviates logistical problems
The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants has more than 300,000 students and members in 160 countries. To launch its centenary year this year, the organisation worked with BroadView to mount an ambitious web broadcast of the opening ceremony in Hong Kong, which was broadcast live to ten events around the world taking place at different times.
Head of marketing Neil Stevenson says: 'It was the first time we'd done anything like this, but we've had a great response. The web gets around a lot of the logistical problems of communicating with and engaging members.
'We want to use online a lot more in our communications. We will be capturing other events, and we are thinking about including a review of our year as part of our reporting process.'
PR agencies are reporting growing interest in this area from clients.
'We've been doing investor presentations and streaming conference calls for clients for a couple of years now, and they are becoming more frequent,' says Whiteoaks Consultancy director Gill Craig. 'The viewers tend to be corporate buyers or institutional investors, but we are encouraging clients to get consumer demos on line to reach smaller investors. If it's done properly, it can be extremely cost-effective.'
The internet is also an effective medium for reaching young, media-savvy consumers who are now using websites as their first port of call for news and information. Low says the auto industry in particular is very keen on online video: 'Videos of cars at motor shows get massive take-up by the broadcast media, as does anything to do with celebrities. Internet broadcast works best for a narrow, defined audiences - investors, special interests, specific industry sectors.'
Stevens points out that video streaming was an integral part of Cardiff's campaign to become European Capital of Culture 2008, using celebrity endorsements and footage of the city.
He points out, however, that web streaming and other internet broadcast PR tools should be treated like any other tactic and used only if they are the right solution to communication needs as part of a wider strategic campaign.
The internet is still largely unregulated, and there are no specific rules governing the use of broadcast clips on the web. The watchword is caution, however, and PR professionals should pay as much attention to libel and defamation in content as they would for any other medium.
Whether this is the year that the PR industry and its clients grab hold of the opportunities of web broadcast as a communications medium remains to be seen.
Some pundits believe the PR industry hasn't yet fully grasped the possibilities of TV and radio as broadcast channels, let alone the internet, while those at the cutting-edge of web broadcast see this as a future staple of corporate communications activity.
There's little doubt that critical audiences of all companies are following them online, and it's completely natural that people will go to the web for information, especially on financial institutions. But the question is now not so much 'shall we use it?' as 'what shall we put on it?'
CASE STUDY: CANTOS
Web broadcasting specialist Cantos was created two-and-a-half years ago to help firms communicate with critical audiences using the internet, and now works for more than a third of the FTSE-100.
Its directors have a mix of broadcast documentary-making, journalism and corporate experience, and the company aims to create compelling content rather than be driven by the technology side of the sector.
When the company began, use of the internet for video was growing. As CEO Lucy Parker says: 'Now it's practically the norm to do video or audio webcasts.'
Cantos builds on this trend with tools such as its signature in-depth CEO interviews. Its team carried out the first camera interview with James Murdoch after he took over at BSkyB, for example.
The company, backed by Brunswick and blue-chip client Cazenove, uses broadband, narrowband, audio and transcripts to support its wide-ranging array of clients, which include Prudential, Standard Life, HMV, Pearson, Cable and Wireless and Severn Trent Water.
Interviews, features, announcements and other video and audio are all posted on Cantos's own website as a single point of reference for the investment community and journalists, as well as on the clients' own corporate websites.
The Cantos website has an audience in 1,000 financial institutions across the world, and in more than 95 per cent of the top 100 holders of UK equities, as well as all the big brokers.
The company works closely with its clients' financial PR and investor relations teams, according to Parker.
'Their job is to help communicate messages and win the support and endorsement of the communities that matter to them. We work alongside them,' she says. 'In essence, we are part of the communications armoury for the PR teams and consultancies.'
The company is now broadening its focus from pure financial PR to take in the production of web broadcast content on topical business issues and related areas such as corporate social responsibility (CSR).